George Romero famously stated Night of the Living Dead is about revolution. The zombies represented a new society literally devouring the old one. Wes Craven has taken the concept of zombies and revolution back to their Voodoo roots in 1988's The Serpent and the Rainbow.
Harvard anthropologist Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman) travels to Haiti to identify and retrieve a powder believed to be used for creating zombies. Here, zombies are not lurching corpses with a hunger for flesh but people who have been so drugged, their vital signs are undetectable, and after they are buried alive, brain damage leaves them to susceptible to claims they are the walking dead. A pharmaceutical company believes the drug can be used an anesthetic. Once in Haiti, Alan teams with a local doctor (Cathy Tyson) and runs afoul of the corrupt government's secret police and its chief, Dargent Peytraud (Zakes Mokae), a Voodoo practitioner who administers the zombie powder to anyone posing a threat to the regime.
You can't believe what you see is real; lurking beneath the illusion is a real danger. That's a common theme throughout Wes Craven's work whether it's the nightmares of Freddy Kruger, the upper class landlords imprisoning cannibals in The People Under the Stairs, the horror fans who take their love of scary movies too far in Scream, and in The Serpent and the Rainbow. Inspired by the non-fiction book by Wade Davis (and much altered to make it a genre piece), the movie concerns the traditional Voodoo zombie, the battle between science and fantasy, and the breakdown of reality. Pullman stumbles onto an organization in which magic is no trick and beneath what he thinks is a hoax is something genuinely terrifying. This point is illustrated in an early at the night club of Lucien (Paul Winfield) when a man under the influence of Peytraud and attacks the doctor; the tourists applaud thinking its part of the act.
The Serpent and the Rainbow contains several striking nightmare visuals: a zombie bride, burning boat, walls closing down to coffin size, hands dragging Pullman into the ground. Admittedly, some parts go over-the-top, such as one individual yanking his own head off, and the villain starts acting in the climax more like a Freddy-like bogeyman than an authoritarian official. However, these contrast nicely with the "real" events, which are more low-key and less fantastical: someone coughing up a scorpion, the powder being blown in Pullman's face (after spending the whole movie building up this drug's effects, this scene is a great set piece), and waking up to find a dead body next to you. We also get the run of totalitarian enforcement methods : interrogation, torture, dungeons, secret police, intimidation.
What Craven succeeds at doing is combining the threat of the corrupt state with the terror of the unknown. It's not enough this secret police will arrest and torture you; they'll steal your soul. The first victim we see is a school teacher named Cristophe (Conrad Roberts), whom we're told spoke of freedom but otherwise lived a quiet life. After zombification, he's a symbol of fear, a warning to anyone who might speak out. That threat is coupled with Pullman getting in over his head. He's an arrogant, cynical white man who doesn't realize the danger he's in and just keeps getting in deeper and deeper until he's literally buried alive.
This hearkens back to the old Hollywood Voodoo zombie movies, such as White Zombie. In that, Bela Lugosi kept an army of zombies as slaves on his Caribbean island, a reflection of European exploitation of the local populations of the Western Hemisphere. In Serpent, it's American exploitation: corporate greed sees a chance for a new product it can market all over the world, ignoring the thousands of years of tradition and belief it's intruding upon. In this postcolonial age, the world's superpowers can no longer enslave the Third World, but they can leave the countries in ruins for dictators to assume control of and then make money of that arrangement.
Much of the movie was shot on location in Haiti and the Dominican Republic and incorporated actual footage of Voodoo ceremonies, including eating ashes and chewing glass, and at times, it feels like we're watching a documentary. We see a wedding, pilgrimage, and candlelit vigil that paint a more complete picture of Voodoo than we normally in movies. Craven's movies often work on multiple layers, and that's the case in The Serpent and the Rainbow, which proves to be one of his deepest works. Not only does it work in mind-bending, rubber-reality horror, it adds a backdrop of political oppression and descent into the unknown. The idea of a corrupt government turning its own citizens into zombies is not only frightening, it's eerily plausible.